Alliance

Have you ever compromised your character in the midst of difficulty and discouragement? There was a time during Hezekiah’s reign that Assyria seemed to be breathing down Judah’s back (pounding on their reinforced gates, actually). A complete conquest and humiliating exile seemed to be inevitable. Hezekiah had way more enemies than friends . . . he needed a rescue. Like so many of us in times of crisis and chaos – he settled for looking in the wrong direction. An envoy from Babylon (a rising power to be sure) was invited into Jerusalem for a negotiation . . . the king actually gave the foreign leadership a personal tour of all his national treasures (especially the of the temple riches). Hezekiah was so busy attempting to impress Babylon that he failed to recognize their underlying motives. He was hoping for an alliance and in the process he shook hands with the devil.

God was not happy with Hezekiah . . . the king chose to rely upon someone else for guidance, provision, and protection. He was saddened with the thought that Judah would soon suffer grave consequences for their rebellious choices. The bible reads, “Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the LORD: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon'” (2 Kings 20:16-18, NIV). Sure, Assyria had trampled the Northern Kingdom of Israel years before. Yes, they were a force to be reckoned with . . . but God wished to do bring the reckoning on behalf of his chosen people! Worse yet, in the ever-changing times of superpowers, Assyria was so yesterday’s news. Babylon was about to be all the rage. Ironically, just as Babylon’s attention was about to turn towards Judah – they actually receive a personal invitation to waltz right in (a perfect opportunity to take inventory and design a sure-fire strategy of invasion).

Why would Hezekiah actually believe that Babylon was the answer to the Assyrian problem? What happened to the “having no gods before me” business? Wasn’t it just chapters (blogs) before that we saw him being a leader worth following – giving much – so that Judah would return to covenant obedience with the Lord? Why do we have the tendency to look everywhere but to God for help in dire situations? Why is he always our last resort (if that at all)? Hadn’t Yahweh shown himself to be loving and loyal? Hadn’t he been the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (not to mention Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and David)? What is it about the new thing that intrigues so much? Why is it that when the going gets tough we cease looking towards the One who has always been there for us? You would think that we would learn from the testimony of scripture and the patterns of our own lives? Time and time again . . . doubt leads to destruction. Hezekiah and Judah watched helplessly as their peace agreement with Babylon became a war that they could not win. Contracts lead to conquest. Their “solution” concluded in chains. Why the new? Why the unproven? What is the seduction?

Alliance

Prayer

INTRODUCTION AND LITERARY CONTEXT

The Gospel of John was likely written within sixty years of Jesus’ death and resurrection and primarily from the location of Ephesus. The author had likely spent a significant amount of time at the strategic epicenter for Christianity as the city simultaneously enjoyed being a cultural hub (as they were a major merging point for both eastern and western civilizations). Disciples in Ephesus had been positively influenced by the Apostle Paul as he had previously spent over two years planting churches in the area.[1] With that in mind, the Gospel shared the Messiah’s message and methods by drawing from personal experiences and additional eyewitness accounts. He was writing to the Jews who had, just in the past two decades, been forced from their beloved homeland.[2] Considering the era in which they lived, he must also had hoped to defend the person and purpose of Jesus against the criticisms being launched from both the Jewish religious establishment (who had recently excluded all Christ-followers from synagogue worship) and the rising tide of Gnostic teachings.[3]

Most assuredly, the final Gospel to be distributed was authored by the Apostle John. Though there are differing opinions on this issue, the size and scope of this topic cannot be adequately discussed in this particular essay. Nevertheless, one can trust the long-standing tradition, beginning consistently with the early Church Fathers and continuing on even with the majority of modern scholarship, that John did indeed inscribe the Gospel under the authority and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.[4] There seems to be a keen awareness that the Counselor was boldly declaring that Jesus was the Son of God. John’s account included not only what Jesus was saying, but in many ways, what he wishes to still say to the church and to the rest of the world.[5] As the Synoptic Gospels focused primarily on the role of God establishing his kingdom on earth, John chose to reiterate the eternal imagery of Christ himself (using metaphors such as “life” and “light”).[6] He told of a God who loved the world enough that he was willing to reveal the truth. His Son, as the representation of both truth and love, desired that people would place their faith in him and therefore receive the full life that he had so graciously offered.

Commentators tend to highlight John 20:31 as to explain John’s goal of “[making] the past career of Jesus Christ a present reality to a later generation.”[7] The narrative is a collection of occurrences which expose and expand on the concept of an authentic belief in Christ. By no accident, the Greek word for “belief” (pisteuo) appeared more than any other word in the Gospel (nearly one hundred times in total).[8] Readers will notice that the plot is chiefly made up of what is a cosmic battle between people’s dependence and doubt as best illustrated through characters such as Simon Peter. Many have even chose to outline the Gospel along the theme of belief: the prologue being the initial suggestion, followed by the appearance of John the Baptist, the response of the crowd, the formation of the group, and then the catastrophe of their faith.

This exegetical essay will focus upon the subsequent passage where Jesus came to terms with the impending arrival of his darkest hour. Even in the midst of this crisis, he chose to courageously confront unbelief by sending Judas away to his own unraveling and simultaneously preparing the remaining disciples for their supreme test. Approaching the inevitable arrest and crucifixion, his prayer revealed an unwavering confidence in his Father’s great plans and purposes which would eventually defend His position as well as commission future believers.[9] Jesus’ request flowed out of a strong belief that the disciples would one day glorify the Father as they unified his movement and personified his mission.

JESUS PRAYED FOR THE CHURCH’S UNITY (17:20-23)

Jesus’ prayer of commencement ended fittingly with intercession for those he was going to leave behind. He had just taken a considerable time challenging them to persevere no matter their personal cost, to love one another as he had first loved them, and even equipped them for the trouble which awaited them in the near future.[10] The final section of Jesus’ prayer revealed his anticipation that his followers would be unsuccessful – but only for a brief moment. His attitude throughout was of assurance that, after seeing the empty tomb and receiving the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, they would be propelled with courage into fulfilling his mission of seeking and saving those who were lost. Just as Matthew’s Gospel quoted Christ’s promise to build his church, John spoke of a Messiah who predicted a gathering of people that added believers on a daily basis.[11] From the beginning he expected that the unity would be open-ended to future disciples (both Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, and so on).

Characteristics of such unity were already modeled by how the Father and the Son related with each other. Their bond was unquestionably one of accord, submission, devotion, and conviction. There was no division between the plans of the Father and the plans of the Son.[12] People would take notice of the church only as they chose to love Christ as he had first loved the Father. Though the world had not yet responded to Jesus’ ministry, the promise was that many would be exposed to his love as they observed the followers interaction with each other. In fact, their very identity and authority stemmed from that love. Unity was the confirmation that they had been sent in God’s name.[13] The church was to follow the example of Christ who was the great ambassador from heaven: even though he did not belong to the world, he freely chose to bring life into the world by first giving up his own.[14]

Oneness was never meant by Jesus to be understood in abstract terms. Rather, unity was to be seen through the lenses of sanctification and reconciliation. How else would the disciples show the qualities and uniqueness of their Master but by loving those around them? How else would the world come to believe in the one true God if they did not see his truth and love consistently and continually displayed in the lives of his people?[15] From the onset, he saw the necessity for the church to be fused together. The original disciples were regularly instructed to guard their common love for each other. However, this assignment would become even more vital as the variety of the group increased with ever new member (whether the diversity came from different personalities, heritages, or passions). The appeal was for the church simply to be one. Though the assortment of gifts and talents would actually enhance their effectiveness it was never intended to supersede their shared connection with Christ. In other words, they were to have a collective voice and vision that reached up to God through worship and out to people through relationship.[16]
As exhibited by the crucifixion upon the cross, love amongst the community was to always be evident in external actions. How else would the unity be revealed to onlookers? How else would they come to believe in the salvation and leadership of Christ?
[17] Clearly, the health and wellbeing of the group rested upon their dependence on the instruction found in God’s Word. Unity would only take place as the people responded to God’s invitation to participate in their holy calling of redeeming humanity. Bringing about re-creation would only take place as the church chose to work alongside each other rather than against each other (or worse yet – without each other).[18] The disciples were the new covenant community that was commissioned into the world with the message of hope. Their language and lifestyle was to clearly represent the eternal message of Christ.

JESUS PRAYED FOR THE MISSION’S REALITY (17:24-26)

The end result of a unified church was to ultimately bring glory and honor to the Heavenly Father. In order to draw deserved attention upward the disciples would have to humble themselves. Christ must have had his own “glory” in mind – the moment that he would willingly lay down his own life so that the necessary sacrifice might be made. This approach was nothing new for Jesus and was clearly presented just chapters before through the expression of washing his followers’ feet. He wished that they would only see him in his primary role – one who selected to serve rather than to be served.[19] Nothing brought glory to God’s name more than Christ’s willingness to sacrifice his own self-interest. There was no greater declaration of God’s love than when Jesus died upon the cross. Likewise, his followers were going to be called upon to show similar acts of selflessness and sacrifice.[20] God’s objective was that his followers would be truly consecrated for his purposes.

The Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father. Such a relationship was visibly centered on a special familiarity and union.[21] The connection originated from a close association rather than on supposed theory. Jesus asked that his disciples be careful to always stay grounded in the Father’s love. John emphasized that this love existed way before the earth was formed. He promised that this love would not only infiltrate the world but surely outlive it. The glory would not only be displayed as Christ conquered death, hell, and the grave but be fulfilled at his return and with the resurrection of all believers.[22] By most measurements, Jesus had very little success to show for on earth. He had arrived in the flesh for the sole purpose of revealing the Father. Even so, the overwhelming majority, “kings of the world and tribes of the earth,”[23] had rejected him (many going as far as to attempt to silence his messenger by way of execution). The few who did come to believe in the Messiah, as unimpressive and unlikely a group ever assembled, were largely made up of what was still untested and barely trained men and women. Yet, it was this group of people that he selected to anoint and assign the grandest undertaking in human history.[24] The mission was to reconcile people back to the Father.[25] Going a step further, those new believers were to always be welcomed with open arms into the Christ-centered community.

Though never directly mentioned, Jesus strongly implied that the Spirit of truth would be active in making the revelation known to others through the testimony of the church. As the prayer came to its conclusion, there was a strong sense that the only task left was the amazing expression of love upon the cross.[26] He understood that his people would have to live in the world far after his resurrection and ascension. However, his greatest concern was that the new covenant people would hold fast to their integrity and influence no matter the difficulties and distractions that may lie ahead. They would always have the confidence in their redemption and the encouragement from their spiritual family. Not only did he promise to never leave their side, he chose to be working in them and through them by the power of the Holy Spirit.[27]

CONCLUSION

As the previous observations have demonstrated, Jesus’ prayer was that his followers’ belief would lead them to honor the Father by way of their united community and embodied commission. John strategically included this farewell prayer, rather than the Synoptic accounts of Gethsemane, in order to once again reveal the glory of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. His hope was that the church might be reminded of their mission to demonstrate that exact splendor to all those who might believe.[28] Correlating with the overarching theme of the Gospel, the prayer was to retell the truth that all people should be given the opportunity to be saved by faith in the Messiah. Jesus was surely the only One, being fully God and fully man, who had the right to pray such a high priestly prayer. The readers cannot ignore his readiness to be sent by God to humanity, that all that believe in him would become a new creation, and ultimately one day return to God alongside him. Unmistakably, this was a prayer that solicits a response from the hearer. The disciples were never to be satisfied by watching others become the church. Instead, both on an individual and corporate level, both on a local and global plane, people must believe in Christ enough to trust and obey his leadership here on earth. The church’s primary responsibility is to make this heavenly prayer become an earthly reality.

WORKS CITED

Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company. 1983.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical
and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Gaebelein, Frank E., ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (v. 9). Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, 1981.

Green, Joel B., ed. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity
Press, 1992.

Kysar, Robert. John, the Maverick Gospel. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,
1976.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. New International Biblical Commentary Series (v. 4). Peabody, MA:
Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.

Pryor, John. John, Evangelist of the Covenant People. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity
Press, 1992.

Wood, D. R. W., ed. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001.

[1] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981), 10.

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 110.

[3] Joel B. Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 597.

[4] Ibid, 601.

[5] J. Ramsey Michaels, New International Biblical Commentary Series (Peabody, Hendrickson, 2002), 10.

[6] Robert Kysar, John, the Maverick Gospel. Louisville, Westminster, 1976), 3.

[7] J. Ramsey Michaels, New International Biblical Commentary Series (Peabody, Hendrickson, 2002), 16.

[8] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981), 13.

[9] Ibid, 14.

[10] John Pryor, John, Evangelist of the Covenant People. Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1992), 68.
[11] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981), 166-167.

[12] John Pryor, John, Evangelist of the Covenant People. Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1992), 70.
[13] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983), 335.

[14] Joel Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1992), 890.

[15] J. Ramsey Michaels, New International Biblical Commentary Series (Peabody, Hendrickson, 2002), 299.

[16] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981), 167.

[17] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983), 335.

[18] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981), 167.

[19] Ibid, 167.

[20] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983), 337.

[21] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981), 168.

[22] J. Ramsey Michaels, New International Biblical Commentary Series (Peabody, Hendrickson, 2002), 300.

[23] Joel Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1992), 890.

[24] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983), 337.

[25] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981), 168.

[26] J. Ramsey Michaels, New International Biblical Commentary Series (Peabody, Hendrickson, 2002), 301.

[27] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983), 337.

[28] D.R.W. Wood, New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 630.

Prayer

Bullies

We have all been bullied (and been the the bully). The first two years of my elementary education were largely full of torment and trouble at the hands of a man-child by the name of Adam. Like many before him, he chose to use his size and strength for the purposes of domination and destruction (where are the heroes when you need them?). That was, until my second grade year, when the food chain was eternally changed at Lincoln Elementary, with the surprise arrival of a Giant by the name of Josh (I swear that he had a full-beard at age nine). If Adam was enormous . . . Josh was ginormous. Adam was finally put in his place . . . justice was finally served. No longer did small second grade males with ears the size of Kansas, outfits purchased by his mother, and a haircut that resembled the Kingdome, have to fear recess . . . that was until Josh and Adam made an alliance. To make matters even worse, why do bullies always have the obnoxious wing-man? You know what I am talking about . . . the punk-kid who would never win a fight if he did not first kiss the tail of the school bully? Yeah, that “woman” happened to be named Jimmy. Long before President W. declared one in his State of the Union Address, I LIVED the Axis of Evil everyday . . . Josh, Adam, and Jimmy. They did not need weapons of mass destruction – they had the apathy of the recess guards.

Doesn’t my experience fit nice and neat with the epic story (a narrative that began long ago and will continue long after my existence)? I am talking about the struggle for the hearts of humanity as recorded in the bible . . . on one side is the Kingdom of God (righteous and revolutionary in all respects) and on the other side is the much smaller empire (evil and rebellious nonetheless). The empire is our enemy . . . aiming to steal land, kill innocence, and destroy destinies. However, the tactics have not changed all that much over history. This Bully is so much more cunning than Josh and Adam of my childhood (they always resorted to brute strength – slow but very effective). This Emperor (self-proclaimed, I might add), makes promises that he cannot keep (in the ’80s – while I was suffering beatings at recess – we called it writing checks that cannot be cashed – whatever checks were). All the enemy can do is utilize different spokespeople for different seasons. Sometimes the stump speech is Cash, sometimes it is Beauty, often it is nothing more than Pleasure or Pride. Just as the fist of Josh would knock the air out of you . . . so does the enemy when you take him at his word.

Let’s have one good look at how the Assyrian king treated Hezekiah (King of Judah) in 2 Kings 18:328-32 (as told in The Message), “Then he stepped forward and spoke in Hebrew loud enough for everyone to hear, “Listen carefully to the words of The Great King, the king of Assyria: Don’t let Hezekiah fool you; he can’t save you. And don’t let Hezekiah give you that line about trusting in God, telling you, ‘God will save us—this city will never be abandoned to the king of Assyria.’ Don’t listen to Hezekiah—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Listen to the king of Assyria—deal with me and live the good life; I’ll guarantee everyone your own plot of ground—a garden and a well! I’ll take you to a land sweeter by far than this one, a land of grain and wine, bread and vineyards, olive orchards and honey. You only live once—so live, really live!” How dare the Bully tempt the chosen people to leave their God for alleged “peace and prosperity!” At what cost? As if, upon surrender, they would be welcomed with open arms into the land of Assyria? Maybe in chains . . . besides having to give up their Land of Promise! What kind of treaty is that? Does anyone read the fine print of these contracts anymore?

The great dictator, the speaker of the evil empire at the time, actually had the audacity to call out the nation of Israel . . . the first covenant people, to choose him or choose Yahweh? Place your allegiance with the Lord and “lose your life” or place your stakes with Sennacherib and “live.” The deal reminds me a lot of when the first couple chose the tree of good and evil . . . didn’t they lose some prime real estate as well? I trusted Josh and Adam once . . . I ended up with a dead-leg that lasted for months (I still blame them for my chronic hair-loss by the way – a blog on bitterness will be written at a later date). The Assyrian king made a strategic mistake . . . the death-life language had been used before . . . and thus had accidentally reminded the people of their glory years . . . the era of the Great Prophet Moses just moments before his death and the eventual conquest of Canaan. The glory days indeed. His challenge actually gave Judah courage. Life would be enjoyed with God and God alone.

Bullies have the tendency to go too far. Josh could make fun of my ears all day long (Dumbo does not bother me anymore) . . . but don’t you dare make fun of my mother. Judah (and their kings) were always dazzled by their enemies’ wealth and wars . . . but don’t you ever call out their God . . . he was the One who brought the Exodus and Conquest, and one day would offer the world a Cross and an Empty Tomb. How are our enemies tempting us with the second best? How are we willingly being bullied and broken-down? Are we listening to the intimidation tactics or are we relying upon the promises of our Creator, the position of our Christ, and the power of our Counselor? Who do we trust? What are we doing in response? Recess has begun . . . let’s go out and play.

Bullies

Monopoly

Have you ever invested a whole lot of time or money into something only to watch helplessly as it unpredictably failed or quickly became obsolete (I am quite content with the original iPhone – thank you very much!)? How many of us live our lives like the old Parker Brothers board game . . . wondering which one of us will gain the most cash, gather the most properties, and finally get the respect that is due us? I am beginning to wonder about this game that we all play . . . that the victory might not just be an end to itself. Maybe there is something much larger (and much more dangerous) behind our attempts to monopolize on everything. According to one dictionary, “monopoly” can be defined as “to exclusively possess or control something or someone.” Have you ever wondered if the motivations behind our decisions might not merely be an issue of greed rather one of trust? In the core of our beings there just might be a desire to be self-sufficient . . . where we have complete control over our direction and destination. I am the captain of the ship. I roll the dice (and the dice do what I say). I rule the board.

How many of us place our life savings in the hands of Wall Street (or worse yet, a Visa or Master Card) in hopes of one day being “financially independent” . . . only to watch as gas prices rise, mortgage companies collapse, CEOs resign, and the market plummets. As much as we try, we still cannot figure out a sure-fire way to be in total control of the economy. Then there some of us who have placed our hopes and dreams in political figures who approach us with promising messages – things will one day be different than they are right now. Even Christ-followers have mistakenly come to believe, from time to time, that if only our preferred candidate would gain the White House that our entire nation would repent and be reconciled to God. However, revivals have rarely (if ever) taken place from the top-down. Maybe it is just easier for us to expect someone else to be “the change” rather than for us to actually own up to these challenges and make a difference in our own world. Some of us place our trust in someone else only because we refuse to take personal responsibility. Others of us only place trust in ourselves because we have yet to be honest concerning our own personal limitations. Have we forgotten that Jesus never called us to a political rally but to a cultural revolution? Our society is so overwhelmed with the “if onlys.” If only I married the perfect person . . . . If only I had a larger house . . . . If only I made the right investments . . . . If only my party was in the majority . . . . If only, if only, if only.

Here are some crazy thoughts to consider . . . maybe our God knows more than we do. Maybe he actually likes to be the underdog . . . to be counted out. Maybe he actually wants us to trust him for the answers. Maybe he should be leading our lives. A Psalter once wrote, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:3-4). I am not encouraging disengagement or irresponsibility . . . rather only that we begin to admit that we are not in control (and we are so much better for it). Our lives are not ours to possess. Let’s learn a lesson from the Israel of the Old Testament. They were to have only one King. He was to establish the leaders, the law, and the land. They were actually better off when they did not have an established throne, and they did not have permanent homes. He intended to bless them in order to be a blessing towards others. What did they choose instead? What we all do (or at least what we would choose if given the opportunity) – they became distracted with the evil empires and the pagan temples. Ooh, I can actually see their god (never mind that it was made of stone and demanded the sacrifice of the firstborn). Ooh, they have really big and shiny chariots (never mind that they were designed with the intent to dominate and destroy the people). Ooh, he is so charismatic when he speaks. Ooh, she says she loves me. Ooh, this job pays better. Ooh, this life looks pleasing to me. We look to everything and everybody . . . as long as we are not asked to be accountable for our actions.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said something about gaining our lives only to eventually lose them? Aren’t we supposed to lose our lives in order to finally gain them? Our goal is not more motels on Park Place and Boardwalk. Our aim is not to win the game at all costs. We are seriously supposed to let someone else take our turn for us? Doesn’t this sound nuts to you? Absolutely. The Kingdom of God is upside-down. Let’s take a risk and begin playing the game differently than we have come to learn it . . . let’s play it for the good of someone else and to the glory of the One we love. Chariots break down. Kings die (and presidents are voted out). Money loses value (have you seen the dollar versus the euro lately?). Stuff breaks (hopefully my iPhone will last a couple more years). People fail (that includes you and I). God’s loving-loyalty lasts a lifetime. Will we take him at his word when he told us that we were designed to love him fully and love others graciously? Will we trust him enough to devote our lives to connecting our world back to him? Forget about Free Parking. Don’t stop to collect the $200. Let’s quit the monopoly and join the movement.

Monopoly

Much

About one hundred years before the fall of Jerusalem, we read about the reign of Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 31. He came from a long line of doubtful and disobedient kings. There were a few great rulers of the past (men like Josiah who had so carefully followed the Law of Moses). Even so, Hezekiah took covenant faithfulness to a whole new level by trusting the Lord in all circumstances imaginable. Nothing best exemplifies this truth than in verses 2-3 which read, “Hezekiah assigned the priests and Levites to divisions . . . to offer burnt offerings and fellowship offerings . . . to give thanks and to sing praises at the gates of the Lord’s dwelling. The king contributed from his own possessions . . . as written in the Law of the Lord.” The chosen people had not seen such courageous leadership since the days of their greatest king named David. Somewhere along the way the throne had lost sight of its role and responsibility. They were to lead by service . . . how far they had fallen beginning with Solomon (who is supposedly one of the wisest people to ever walk the earth). Was he not the one who built the temple (and his home) upon the backs of hard labor? Was he not the one who married hundreds of different women (not to mention their concubines)? Was he not the one who capitalized upon his nation’s peace by enjoying the fruits of prosperity? For what gain? Was this not the very season he began erecting altars to the gods of surrounding nations (all at the request of his lady-friends)? How far and fast did Israel fall from their God-given purpose of being blessed in order to be a blessing – to enjoy the presence of God in order to share him with the world. Where did it all go wrong? Leadership. Solomon began taking instead of giving. He began to take much instead of give much.

God was gracious enough to place a king like Hezekiah upon the throne . . . as one last opportunity for his first covenant people to turn from their rebellion and return to righteousness. Is it no coincidence that this generation’s revival began with a leader that chose to give much instead of take much? The bible goes on to say (after he first gave of his own supply) in verses 4-8 that “[Hezekiah] ordered the people . . . to give the portion due the priests and Levites so they could devote themselves to the Law of the Lord . . . the Israelites generously gave the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, oil and honey and all that the fields produced. They brought a great amount, a tithe of everything. The men . . . brought a tithe of their herds and flocks and a tithe of the holy things dedicated to the Lord their God, and they piled them in heaps . . . When Hezekiah and his officials came and saw the heaps, they praised the Lord and blessed his people Israel” (2 Chronicles 31:2-8). Heaps. Much was given by the people because they first saw their leader give much. Sounds simple . . . he led by example. He recaptured the role of the king – to give much for the good of the people and to the glory of his God.

Think now upon the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. If anyone had the right to demand worldly popularity, position, and profit . . . wasn’t it the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Instead, Jesus chose to humble himself to the point that his primary purpose was to seek and save those who were lost. He was the one who gave everything he had – withholding not even his very life – so that others might be reconnected to his Father in Heaven. Did he have a palace? Not even a place to lay his head. Did he have a wife? He had difficulty finding friends who would stick close like brothers. Did he have any money? He had barely enough money to pay his own taxes. Is this the life of a king? Absolutely. He fulfilled what Hezekiah dreamt about. Finally, the world had a leader worth following. Finally, a king worthy of our trusting obedience. Finally, a leader who wants what is best for us . . . even when it would take self-sacrifice . . . even when the message and methods might be unpopular and misunderstood . . . even when people would not respond with their allegiance. He was a king of grace, of goodness, and thus of greatness.

The question becomes, how do you and I lead? What are our goals and ambitions? How quickly we become distracted by popularity, position, and profit? How many good-intending pastors become obsessed with buildings, budgets, and butts (aka attendance)? Are we guilty, from time to time, of losing focus of true servant leadership? Are we willing to turn a corner in our lives by following the example set before us by Hezekiah. He was not willing to demand of his people anything that he would not do first. Maybe that is what vision truly is . . . not just telling people what they should become . . . but showing them first. He loved the God-ordained mission enough that he was actually ready to invest in it. The irony of the situation is that the people actually followed through . . . and followed through with so much. There were heaps given. They exceeded expectations. I have a sneaking suspicion it was because they saw that they were being called to something bigger than themselves. There was no doubt in their minds that their leader believed in what he was calling them to. Sounds a whole lot like when Jesus left his followers with the Great Commandment and Great Commission. Who better to challenge people in loving God and loving others than the one who gave much in doing just that? Who better to call people to make disciples than the one who was so focused on that aim that it killed him (for three days anyway). Let’s be leaders worth following. Let’s give of ourselves to the mission of Christ . . . and see so much take place in return.

Much

Denim

I have been taking much of this summer to visit other student ministries and churches in our region. The aim behind these trips is to expose myself to different methods and strategies – many of which I enjoy and others that I tend to dislike – many of which we might implement and many of which we will never implement. This past Wednesday I visited an extremely thriving youth ministry in the area . . . a place where I took away many helpful insights and ideas (of what to do and of what not to do). That being said, one aspect of the gathering greatly disturbed me . . . more than that, this event was a reminder to me of the importance of guarding my attitudes and actions. The troubling occurrence took place when one of the adult leaders received the offering. She began by reading a popular verse where Jesus reminded his original disciples that his Heavenly Father had been known to take care of the birds of the air . . . implying that we consider how much more he shows love and loyalty towards his children. An incredible passage and to truly unpack such a teaching would demand a blog for another day. So far so good. I was expecting her then to discuss God’s generosity and our calling to trust and obey him (especially with our finances). No, that is so far from where she ended up going. Instead, she told an intriguing story of a time where she was shopping for a pair of blue jeans. Designer denim. Tragically, the high-end store ended up not having her size. Yet, in “faith” she was able to walk out of the store with confidence that he would provide for her in some other way. Flash forward six months later to the day that she just so happened to walk into a completely different store only to discover the exact jeans (right color, right fit, and right size) for HALF OFF the retail price. Isn’t God good?

Sarcasm aside, I am a believer that God does indeed care about the little things of our lives. The bible boldly declares that God does know every hair on our head (why did he choose hair as an illustration?). He invites us to share with him our most intimate dreams. Here is the difficulty, we must never give with the expectation to get something in return. In all of her stories and excitement she never once told me what I was giving to. Not once. In my setting we give tithes and offerings at our Sunday gathering for the purpose of fulfilling our mission of building bridges to all generations by connecting people to Christ and to one another. Our people have the assurance of the leadership that their resources will be invested in ways for us to collectively reach up to God and out to people, build a committed community of Christ-followers, and send those people into service. In the setting of our student mid-week gatherings, the offering goes directly to equip our global missionaries with needed technology and transportation. Why not give people the opportunity to give to something bigger than themselves? Why not give them the opportunity to give – even when they might not get anything in return?

When did much of (not all) modern Western Christianity get caught up with “me” instead of “we” (or even “them”)? When did the desire for designer jeans become a priority for the church? Again, my goal behind this blog is not to attack or demean the leader (or the church in which she represents). Instead, this troubling moment has forced me to take inventory of my own life. Recently I came across an ancient song (probably written just months before Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire – about six hundred years before the birth of the Messiah). The first covenant people had not only been disobedient in worshiping other gods . . . they had quickly become distracted with the wealth and pleasures of the surrounding people. Designer jeans. The author called out in Psalm 113, “God is higher than anything and anyone, outshining everything you can see in the skies. Who can compare with God, our God, so majestically enthroned, surveying his magnificent heavens and earth?” (verses 4-6). Isn’t God amazing? He is the Creator and King over the entire universe (whether you and I choose to acknowledge him or not). However, the writer then went on to sing, “He picks up the poor from out of the dirt, rescues the wretched who’ve been thrown out with the trash, seats them among the honored guests, a place of honor among the brightest and best. He gives childless couples a family, gives them joy as the parents of children. Hallelujah!” (verses 7-9). Are you telling me that the most rich and powerful Ruler in the galaxy chooses to spend his time, energy, and resources (not on denim jeans) but with the poor and powerless? He actually concerns himself with those who are in most need of love and acceptance? Sounds like he is compelled to love the unlovable, like the unlikely, and touch the untouchables! He even invites them to share in the party!

Maybe that is why, when that King came to the earth in the flesh (we know him as Jesus of Nazareth), he spend the majority of his ministry healing the sick, hugging the lepers, and talking to the rebellious. If that is indeed the case, and you and I make the claim to be followers of him, are we not to do the same exact thing? Should we not also rub shoulders with the sick, the sickening, and the sinful? Is that true? Who tends to fill the seats of our churches? Who do we hope will fill those seats? Deep down inside don’t we all enjoy having pretty people as a part of our congregation? Don’t we all welcome the rich? What about the imperfect and the insignificant? Where would I be today if I had not first been given what I did not deserve? Isn’t there a part of me that still wants to be powerful, popular, and prosperous? Don’t we all want the designer jeans? That is why we must constantly rely upon the transformation of the Holy Spirit . . . he is the only One who will truly create in me the thoughts, the feelings, the words, and the actions of Jesus Christ. Wanting the designer jeans is not a bad thing . . . as long as we are equally willing to take the shirt off of our back for somebody who needs it.

Denim

Greatness

The Olympics are returning this August (this time to Beijing). Of course this makes me think about my favorite moments in the modern games – those heroic performances that seemed to capture the world’s attention. Who could forget Michael Phelps’ six gold medals in 2004 pool (he is poised to exceed that this time around)? How about Mary Lou Retton becoming the first American to win all-around on the gymnastic floor? My personal favorite is watching old footage of Herb Brooks’ amateurs upsetting the Soviet Machine in 1980 hockey play. Isn’t it hard to believe that the Games have been around since Athens of 1896 (nearly fifty competitions when one includes the Summer and Winter Games all together). The events have included (but are not limited to) swimming, basketball, boxing, fencing, soccer (not a fan), gymnastics, tennis, volleyball, weightlifting, and even wrestling.

All this makes me wonder, why are we so fascinated with competition? In what ways? Our lives are full of moments where we strive to outdo someone else for power, position, popularity, or even profit. The age-old questions of Microsoft vs. Mac (I aim to be Bill Gates-free by 2011), Chevy vs. Ford (VWs rule), or Beatles vs. Rolling Stones (depends on the mood)? So many of us do not hesitate to take sides when it comes to being Republican or Democrat, Pentecostal or Baptist, Dodger fan or Mariner fans (go Blue). Where have we learned to measure ourselves against someone else? Why are we so fascinated with comparing our performance against anothers? We all do it – who can make the most money or accumulate the most possessions? Who will receive the highest grades or the greatest promotions? Then there are those of us who tragically base our personal value upon our own appearances. It becomes all about wearing the latest name brands or even altering our physical features (I have considered hair plugs from time to time). There are the mothers who need to have the most well-behaved children or the fathers with the best well-manicured lawn. All of this competition has it’s source in our search for significance – our desire to be considered great. Isn’t that what Paul was saying when he wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, NIV). Jackson Brown said it best, “There lives in each of us a hero awaiting the call to action”

I have heard it said that God defines greatness as when you and I deny our personal comfort for an eternal contribution. The passage above was a letter written by the Apostle Paul during his three year stay in Ephesus (about twenty years after Christ’s resurrection). He wrote to a place called Corinth – a place encompassing a large population and strategic port (central city of Greece – much like Seattle is to the Northwest). Like any Greek city they placed a high value upon wisdom and education. In addition, however, they practiced temple prostitution in the name of the goddess named Aphrodite (so much so that in the pagan Roman culture the term “to Corinthinize” was used to describe sexual immorality). That being said, Paul began receiving word about a church that was being overrun with jealousy, marital breakups, sexual perversion, and the abuse of spiritual gifts. The first-century Christ-followers suffered from the same disorder that many of modern day version has – they assumed that they had arrived – that they knew all that was necessary in their faith. Instead of changing the culture by loving God and loving others (or sadly abandoning the culture like many of us do) they began to simply blend in.

In response, Paul chose to correlate spiritual maturity with the Corinthians’s own Isthmian games (hosted on the alternate year of Athens’ Olympic Games). He challenged the church to run as runners do – with self-discipline (an intense regimen to daily improvement). Runners train with strictness (a stringent diet and much consistent practice). Why do runners struggle? They do all that for a temporary crown (a wreath which withers away). They do it for one short moment of striking a victory pose (the modern version they are able to hear their anthem played). How much more should the church practice self-discipline when our mission is to reconnect our world to Jesus Christ. Paul was not a mere motivational speaker – he was calling the church to life transformation! He then went on to say that Christ-followers must fight as fighters do – with self-denial (a painful sacrifice of one’s desire). Don’t get this illustration mixed up with modern-day heavyweight boxing where the “athletes” hug a whole lot. A poor boxer will fan the air (wasting vital energy on harmless and useless shots). No, Paul encourages disciples to aim gloves against his own body (figuratively bruising one’s own body). These men did not use padded gloves . . . they hit their target with knuckles bound in nothing less than leather straps. Why did Paul, an apostle, work so hard? He feared the disqualification from the competition – he did not want to lose the influence he had to make a difference in the Kingdom of God. He might have had a right to do a lot of things but he understoothe responsibility he had as a leader.

Doesn’t this go against the easy and self-indulgent lifestyle of the Corinthian culture? What about our own culture? Hasn’t this attitude even bled into the church? I have heard even some mega-church pastors (our idea of success) on news specials say that following Christ is the easiest thing they have ever done. Is it? Doesn’t this journey of trusting obedience towards Jesus Christ go against everything natural within us? That is why this is a “super-natural” lifestyle. That being said, with all the difficulty, once one takes the step of surrender – of living our lives for God’s agenda rather than our own, we recognize that this is the life that we have been created for and the one which we have always wanted! Now let me make this very clear, nothing will ever earn our salvation. Paul was encouraging the church to evaluate their hearts on a regular basis (out of devotion rather than obligation).

Again I believe that “There lives in each of us a hero awaiting the call to action.” The question that every Christ-follower must ask is this, “Am I running the race to finish strong? How so or how not?” Am I really modeling my life after Jesus Christ (with self-discipline and self-denial). Didn’t the author of Hebrews remind his church to focus on the author and perfecter of their faith. Didn’t the Messiah endure the cross for the joy set before him (of seeing the possibility of humanity reconnected to their Creator)? Wasn’t it that “competitive spirit” which empowered him to scorn the shame and eventually sit down at the right hand of God (sounds an awful lot like the Father was placing Jesus on the winning pedestal and allowing the anthem to be played). That is probably why Jesus is quoted as saying that it is “More blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Do we really believe that? Jesus must have. He was compelled to sacrifice his own comfort for 33 years (his ministry launched with temptation in the wilderness and ended with a champion’s wreath – a crown of thorns thrust upon his head in ridicule and pain). Didn’t he gain the prize of pleasing God only to give it away (to his enemies nonetheless).

Are we, as his self-proclaimed followers, ready to begin the journey of self-denial and self-discipline? Beginning is the most difficult part (being lazy feels so good). Working out feels terrible for a moment but is amazing in the end. We endure setbacks (we have no wind and our muscles are screaming at us to stop). However, breakthrough always come. First, we have to battle the doubt, the discouragement, the distractions, and the depression. The old dichotomy is that we are too embarrassed to go to the gym but then we are embarrassed because we did not go to the gym! I am not immune. It is no surprise to many of you that, this past December, I was at my heaviest all-time weight. If I did not make drastic changes in my diet and exercise my personal life and ministry would suffer. The fight has begun – and in the last six months I have lost thirty five pounds . . . but I still have thirty to go (actually thirty five . . . I have put five back on). We all have battles . . . it is just that mine happens to be visible. Success comes only when we humble ourselves enough to surround ourselves with accountability and teamwork.

Are we, as a church, willing to surrender our rights for our responsibility to build bridges to all generations by connecting people to Christ and to one another? How are you doing with reaching up to God? Do you make a corporate worship gathering a priority or do you mistakenly believe that following Christ is a solo-venture? How are you doing with building a committed community (maybe that means that you are baptized in water for the first time or join a small group where you are forced to be real with other people. Are you willing to be sent into service through ministry teams? I was overwhelmed with the sight and sacrifice of a man I know who gave up a vacation (a vacation!) to drive forty-five students seven hours to camp . . . he spent the entire week sleeping on bunk beds and interacting with middle school students. He did this because he wanted to use his gifts for other people. How about reaching out to people? Are we actually doing anything for those who are currently disconnected from Christ? No strings attached? I know that one race can make a difference. Just ask Jesse Owens. He was one who was watching Nazism spread throughout Eastern Europe in 1936 . . . the same year that the Olympic Games came to Berlin. This was Hitler’s opportunity, or so he thought, to showcase the Aryan superiority against those he considered “non-humans.” Owens ran . . . and ran well . . . winning four golds medals and having a street named after him fifty years later. Greatness. Are we running that way? Can we hear the great crowd of witnesses, spoken of in Hebrews 12:1, cheering our names?

Greatness